Police raid Travellers' site to free men 'kept as slaves' for 15 years

Twenty-four "slaves" who were held at a Travellers' site in "shockingly filthy and cramped" conditions for up to 15 years have been freed as part of an ongoing police operation.

Officers were searching for more victims and suspects last night after making five arrests under anti-slavery laws in a dawn raid yesterday.

The arrests at Greenacre caravan site in Leighton Buzzard, Bedfordshire, formed part of a two-year operation, a police spokesman said. Weapons, drugs and money were also found at the site, he said.

Officers believe other suspects they intended to arrest in yesterday's raid had left the site and warned that slaves could also have been moved.

Detective Chief Inspector Sean O'Neil said the men were "recruited" from soup kitchens and benefits offices. "They're told, if you come here we'll pay you £80 a day and give you board and lodgings. But when they get here, their hair is cut off them, they're kept in some cases [in] horseboxes, dog kennels and old caravans, made to work for no money, given very, very small amounts of food."

The raid highlights the extent to which slavery in Britain thrives more than 200 years after it was outlawed. Anti-slavery campaigners said that, at any one time, there are around 5,000 people in the country who are victims of trafficking for forced labour and prostitution.

Paul Donohoe, a spokesman for Anti-Slavery International, said: "Coercion is used to bring people into the country to work in the sex industry or do other types of forced labour. Some are told they are coming to work in a café and only find out they are being exploited when they arrive. Others are paid a nominal wage, from which is deducted money they are told they owe; most commonly they are told they are paying back the cost of transporting them to Britain."

More slaves in Britain come from Nigeria than from any other country, ahead of China and Vietnam and more than a quarter are men and a similar number are children.

Official figures compiled using the National Referral Mechanism – the Serious Organised Crime Agency's framework for identifying victims of human trafficking – show that, between 1 April 2009 and 31 March 2011, 1,481 people were working as slaves in the UK.

But campaigners say that those figures only take into account the number of people found by police.

More than 200 officers were involved in yesterday's raid. Five residents of the caravan site, four men and one woman, were arrested under the Slavery and Servitude Act 2010 and are being held by police. The slaves, all men, were taken to a medical reception centre. Some were said to be English and others eastern European. Mr O'Neil said: "The men we found at the site were in a poor state of physical health and the conditions they were living in were shockingly filthy and cramped. We believe that some of them had been living and working there in a state of virtual slavery, some for just a few weeks and others for up to 15 years."

The chief inspector added: "Some people did leave and told us what was going on and when we looked back since 2008 we were aware of 28 people who had made similar accusations."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
election 2015The 10 best quotes of the campaign
A caravan being used as a polling station in Ford near Salisbury, during the 2010 election
election 2015The Independent's guide to get you through polling day
David Blunkett joins the Labour candidate for Redcar Anna Turley on a campaigning visit last month
voicesWhat I learnt from my years in government, by the former Home Secretary David Blunkett
ebooksA celebration of British elections
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: ‘We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon’, says Ed Balls

'We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon'

In an exclusive interview, Ed Balls says he won't negotiate his first Budget with SNP MPs - even if Labour need their votes to secure its passage
VE Day 70th anniversary: How ordinary Britons celebrated the end of war in Europe

How ordinary Britons celebrated VE Day

Our perception of VE Day usually involves crowds of giddy Britons casting off the shackles of war with gay abandon. The truth was more nuanced
They came in with William Caxton's printing press, but typefaces still matter in the digital age

Typefaces still matter in the digital age

A new typeface once took years to create, now thousands are available at the click of a drop-down menu. So why do most of us still rely on the old classics, asks Meg Carter?
Discovery of 'missing link' between the two main life-forms on Earth could explain evolution of animals, say scientists

'Missing link' between Earth's two life-forms found

New microbial species tells us something about our dark past, say scientists
The Pan Am Experience is a 'flight' back to the 1970s that never takes off - at least, not literally

Pan Am Experience: A 'flight' back to the 70s

Tim Walker checks in and checks out a four-hour journey with a difference
Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics - it's everywhere in the animal world

Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics

Voting, mutual back-scratching, coups and charismatic leaders - it's everywhere in the animal world
Crisp sales are in decline - but this tasty trivia might tempt back the turncoats

Crisp sales are in decline

As a nation we're filling up on popcorn and pitta chips and forsaking their potato-based predecessors
Ronald McDonald the muse? Why Banksy, Ron English and Keith Coventry are lovin' Maccy D's

Ronald McDonald the muse

A new wave of artists is taking inspiration from the fast food chain
13 best picnic blankets

13 best picnic blankets

Dine al fresco without the grass stains and damp bottoms with something from our pick of picnic rugs
Barcelona 3 Bayern Munich 0 player ratings: Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?

Barcelona vs Bayern Munich player ratings

Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?
Martin Guptill: Explosive New Zealand batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

Explosive batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

Martin Guptill has smashed early runs for Derbyshire and tells Richard Edwards to expect more from the 'freakish' Brendon McCullum and his buoyant team during their tour of England
General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

On the margins

From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

Why patients must rely less on doctors

Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'